Riding therapy improves motor skills in children with cerebral palsy, study finds

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Researchers from the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology have confirmed horse riding as a viable mobility treatment for cerebral palsy. The study shows that functional mobility in children with cerebral palsy can be improved through physical interaction with horses. Image: Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology
Researchers from the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology have confirmed horse riding as a viable mobility treatment for cerebral palsy. The study shows that functional mobility in children with cerebral palsy can be improved through physical interaction with horses. Image: Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology

Functional mobility in children with cerebral palsy can be improved through physical interaction with horses, fresh research shows.

Cerebral palsy is a common disability among children, characterized by abnormal gait patterns and the inability to maintain posture and balance.

While the condition is incurable, physical therapy treatments can help to improve movement and balance.

One such treatment approach is hippotherapy, which uses horse riding to improve functional mobility in children with cerebral palsy. Although supported by scientific studies as an effective treatment approach for the condition, there is little data on how it brings about improvement.

A team of researchers from Korea and the United States addressed this question in a study published recently in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation. The study team investigated physical interaction metrics between horses and children with cerebral palsy during hippotherapy.

“My original research interests lie in the rehabilitation of people with neurological impairment, specifically gait and balance,” explained study leader Dr Pilwon Hur, from the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology in Korea.

“However, I did not know about hippotherapy until rather recently, in 2016. After realizing how effective it is in treating children with cerebral palsy, I was motivated to explore it further.”

The research team studied four children with cerebral palsy over the course of eight physical therapy sessions. They placed sensors on the horses and children to record their movements and track their acceleration and angular velocity.

They found that the data from the horses and children began to resemble each other as time progressed, indicating a synchronization between the horse and the rider. They also gave the children mobility tests after each session and observed improvement in their motor skills at the end of the experiment.

“We found that physical interaction between the children with cerebral palsy and the horses, characterized by the children adapting to the horse’s movement and vice versa, is extremely important for the rehabilitation to be effective,” Hur says.

Excited by these findings, the team hopes their work will provide a baseline for further research on hippotherapy.

“To the best of my knowledge, ours is the first study to quantify these interactions and relate them to effectiveness,” Hur says. “Such an understanding would help us optimize physical therapy programs, improving the quality of life for children with CP.”

Lightsey, P., Lee, Y., Krenek, N. et al. Physical therapy treatments incorporating equine movement: a pilot study exploring interactions between children with cerebral palsy and the horse. J NeuroEngineering Rehabil 18, 132 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12984-021-00929-w

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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